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"Foul Fingers Crimson with Dead Men's Blood" read the bold lettering on one poster for The Body Snatcher (1945). "Midnight Murder! Body Blackmail! Stalking Ghouls!" read another. The publicity department at RKO worked overtime to scare up an audience equal to the one that made Cat People such a success for producer Val Lewton three years earlier and, for the most part, they succeeded. The Body Snatcher, despite the lurid ad campaign, is a literate and atmospheric shocker, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, that marked the first of three collaborations between horror star Boris Karloff and producer Lewton (The other two films were Bedlam and Isle of the Dead).
Whereas Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was inspired by a dream, The Body Snatcher was based on a historical incident in Edinburgh in 1827. At that time, medical schools lacked sufficient funding or the resources to provide their students with cadavers for study. Seeing a financial opportunity there, William Burke suggested to his landlord, William Hare, that they sell the body of a recently deceased boarder to Dr. Robert Knox, an instructor at a Surgeon's Square anatomy school. Knox was grateful to have a specimen for his class and Burke and Hare began a lucrative operation that quickly moved from grave-robbing to murder. It was estimated that the duo murdered up to 28 people, preying on drunks, prostitutes, and the destitute elderly.
In Stevenson's account of the tale, told in flashback, a respected Edinburgh surgeon, Dr. MacFarlane enters into a secret agreement with a menacing cabbie named John Gray, who robs graves for his medical research. When MacFarlane realizes that Gray has turned to murder for his bodies, he attempts to end his relationship with Gray, only to be threatened with blackmail.
Producer Val Lewton ran into some difficulties bringing The Body Snatcher to the screen. RKO executive producer Jack J. Gross insisted on more gore in the film while the Hays Office warned against it and any explicit treatment of grave-robbing and the dissection and pickling of human corpses. Somehow, Lewton managed to walk a fine line between the two while effectively recreating the look of 1831 Edinburgh on a ridiculously low budget and accelerated shooting schedule. Albert Dekker, John Emery, George Coulouris, and Alan Napier were all considered for the part of MacFarlane before Henry Daniell was cast in the role. Bela Lugosi, who was used mainly for extra marquee value, was cast in the role of Joseph, MacFarlane's servant, a role that was added for Lewton's film and didn't exist in the Stevenson story.
Film critic James Agee, an admirer of Lewton's work, reviewed The Body Snatcher and wrote that it provides "an anthology of eminently nasty creeps and jolts. The sudden snort of a horse is timed to scare the daylights out of you; there is a grisly shot of Lugosi's slaughtered head, distorted beneath brine; and the last passage in the picture is as all-out hair-raising a climax to a horror film as you are ever likely to see."
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Val Lewton
Screenplay: Philip MacDonald, Carlos Keith (a pseudonym for Val Lewton)
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Editor: J. R. Whittredge
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Henry Daniell (Dr. MacFarlane), Boris Karloff (John Gray), Bela Lugosi (Joseph), Russell Wade (Donald Fettes), Edith Atwater (Meg Camden).
BW-79m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford